Faith, Motherhood

How to Make It Through Church With Young Kids (5 Actionable Strategies)

church meetinghouse
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Hey! Today’s blog post is inspired by a reader’s response to last week’s blog survey (if you still haven’t taken that, click here!), and I thought it was a brilliant idea for a post. I know many families have a tradition of making sure they go to Sunday worship services on Easter Sunday, so since that’s coming up, I figured now is a GREAT time for this post.

Just so you have a little background about me, my family and I are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and we go to church every single Sunday. For the majority of my life, our church block lasted for 3 hours each Sunday, but starting this year, our church leaders shortened that to two hours for every branch of the church throughout the world, so we’re newly adjusting to a shortened church schedule this year.

However, even with a shortened church schedule, sometimes 2 hours can still seem like a loooong time to keep kids in line and behaving!

While we’re hardly experts (and perhaps in 4 or 5 years when we hopefully have a couple more children, I might laugh at how we naively thought we had it all together now), we HAVE had success in helping our children to behave appropriately during church and to not (usually) embarrass us too much with their behavior.

Perhaps some of our strategies will work for you, too.

Note: There are some affiliate links in this post to products we use. All opinions, as always, are my own.

church steeple

1. Establish Expectations

When Matt and I were first married, we listened to some audio c.d.’s as we drove to our honeymoon destination that were all about how to lay the foundation of a happy marriage. One of the things I’ll never forget is the book’s advice on communicating expectations–

It told the anecdote of a husband who’s about to go in to the gas station to pay for gas and asks his wife if she wants anything. She shrugs her shoulders and says something like, “Whatever you think,” and so her husband goes in, buys a drink and candy for himself, and then comes back out. She then spends the rest of the car ride in huffy silence while her husband happily slurps on his drink. The book talked about how if you find yourself annoyed at your spouse a lot of the time for something, think back to make sure you’ve actually established a clear expectation first. Not a vague expectation. Not a “Well, he’s an adult and should know this by now” expectation. Not a “I’m telling you with my body language and tone of voice” expectation. AN ACTUAL, CLEARLY STATED EXPECTATION.

With kids, the same rule applies. If you think your kids should just “get” that they should behave a certain way of church because other people’s kids are or because YOU know how they should, you are setting yourself up for disappointment (and you are setting your kids up to not meet your expectations).

So first, take some time to figure out what your expectations are for your kids in church. If you’re married, take some time to discuss with your spouse about what you both expect so you can be on the same page.

In our church, kids go to two different meetings during the two-hour block: sacrament meeting, then Primary (or Nursery, as long as they’re at least 18 months old and up to age 3). During sacrament meeting, which is when the whole congregation meets together to take the sacrament in remembrance of Christ’s sacrifice and to hear speakers give talks on various topics, we expect that our kids will stay in our row, whisper quietly if they need to talk (though we expect that they won’t talk much, either), and that they don’t bother the people around us. We expect that they’ll sit on the bench for the majority of the meeting, play quietly with any toys we’ve brought, and that they are especially reverent and respectful when the sacrament is being passed around. For Primary, we expect them to listen to the speakers and to their teachers, sing when the chorister is teaching them music, and to stay seated in their seats and not bother the other children around them.

That’s a lot of expectations, especially for a small child!

But, since we know where we want them to be (and we’re both committed to that vision), it makes the execution quite a bit easier.

If you are going to church for the first time, or going for the first time in a long time, prep your children as much as possible beforehand so they know what to expect. (And if you haven’t gone in awhile or have never been, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected] for suggestions or for what YOUR expectations should be! I’m happy to help!) Clearly state your expectations for their behavior, and offer them suggestions on how they can best meet those expectations (and how you will help them meet those expectations).

Been going to church for awhile but still having problems managing unruly children? Have a talk about it the night before! You could even make it a point to have an expectations talk every Saturday night before until they start to internalize things.

With kids, REPETITION IS KEY. I know it is super frustrating sometimes to feel like you are saying the same things over and over again, but kids really do NEED repetition to learn something and make it stick. So repeat your expectations often! (And try to do it not in a lecture way, but in a teaching way. We share scriptures and talk about how Jesus showed us the example of how to treat sacred things. We also talk about how our actions affect other people and their ability to feel the peace they need at church.)

church congregation

2. Prep,Prep, Prep

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. So rather than crossing your fingers and hoping for the best when it comes to your Sunday worship services with kids, PLAN AHEAD. This is absolutely key to your success!

First of all, if you know you’ll be scrambling around in the morning trying to find kids’ dresses, ties, slacks, and shoes/socks, then select them the night before and lay them out (or let your kids select their own the night before, and this way you can have any arguments polite discussions over their choices the night before, rather than adding to the stress the morning of). If you have an early church service or one that will fall soon after a mealtime, make sure you plan out a quick meal option ahead of time so that you don’t end up walking in five minutes late because eating/meal prep took longer than you thought it would.

Basically, try to do everything before that you can–the quickest way to ensure that you kid will act out at church is to be stressed out of your mind and yelling at him/her to hurry up all morning before you leave.

As much as you possibly can, try to make sure your kids are well-fed and not super tired when you leave for church (I know with a baby that it’s super hard, especially with certain church times!). Make sure everyone gets to bed at a decent hour the night before and that everyone has time to eat a sufficient breakfast/lunch/meal of some kind.

Pack a church bag

We keep a church bag that’s DIFFERENT than our normal diaper bag so that it’s basically ready to go each Sunday–the only thing we have to do weekly is to pack a small container of Cheerios and check to make sure we have enough diapers/wipes in there (and a change of clothes, if the baby happened to have a blowout the Sunday before). Since we don’t use the bag for anything else during the week, I don’t have to worry about the items going missing or getting used up, and since our kids just get to play with the toys in the bag on Sundays, it makes them seem a little more special.

Here’s what’s in ours:

  • Diapers/wipes for the baby
  • Change of clothes (just for the baby)
  • 3-4 board books
  • An inspiration/photo book (more on this in section #4)
  • A small container of Cheerios
  • A small sketchbook/notepad and crayons
  • Copies of church magazines
  • A few small toys (NOT anything that makes noise)
    • We have a small doll whose “bed” converts into a little handbag; a small sleeping mouse figure with a little “box” bed; baby toys like these interlocking rings or a couple foam blocks; and a stuffed animal and blankie.
  • An extra blanket to line the carseat or cover the baby in the carseat
  • Pacifier
  • Eventually, I plan to make a Quiet Book (you can follow my Pinterest board on some plans/designs for that here)

***Note: We do NOT bring a tablet for our kids to play on during church (and we don’t own smartphones). We understand that it’s hard for children to pay attention the whole time (which is why we bring quiet games and things for them to look at), but we also recognize that they need to learn how to sit quietly and listen some of the time, even when very young. If you start them young expecting that they’ll be able to just play on your tablet or phone the whole time, then they won’t ever learn to listen, or there will be a lot of resentment when those things are eventually taken away. Better to just learn from the get-go what you eventually expect them to do.

church congregation singing a hymn

3. Set boundaries at church, and don’t forget to follow through.

Hopefully you’ve taken the time beforehand to clearly lay out your expectations before you go to church, so your kid won’t be totally shocked when you do some of these things in response to behaviors (and I’ll give some suggestions for babies, too). But even with the best-laid expectations, children sometimes choose to learn things the hard way—by being forced to live through the consequences.

But remember, your best defense is a good offense, so make sure you’ve told your children the expectations beforehand! This includes what you expect from them noise-wise, where they can go during certain meetings, what they can expect to happen if they choose not to follow your family rules, etc.

Here are the boundaries and consequences we currently have in place:

If your child/toddler is having a tantrum…

If you are in a big meeting where the whole congregation is present (aka, not a meeting mostly made up of kids) and your child starts to scream/kick/be loud in general, take them out into the hall/foyer. It will simply stress you out more to have people watching the meltdown, and it will not help your child to get the direction he/she needs if you are angry-whispering in his ear while he is wailing so loudly he can’t hear anything.

However, once you get out into the hall, DO NOT LET YOUR KID RUN AROUND. Here’s a trick straight from my mother-in-law (who raised five energetic boys and had to manage all five by herself many Sundays during the years when my father-in-law was the bishop and had to sit up on the stand)–If you have to take a kid out, go find somewhere to sit, and just hold your child in your lap (pinning their arms down in a lock with your own arms if they are trying to hit you and thrashing around). If they are kicking and screaming, this might require some serious patience and finagling, but do NOT let them run around or get down.

Think about it for a second:

If your kid is acting naughty during the meeting and you take him out into the hall and then let him run free and play and do whatever he wants, what’s your kid going to do the next time he doesn’t want to sit still in the meeting? REPEAT THE PROCESS. Because running around and playing and being free to do whatever is MUCH more appealing to toddler and children, they could very well start acting up every time you’re in a meeting, just because they know that in doing so, they’ll get rewarded with what they want. (And, without you even realizing it, you are rewarding YOURSELF every time this happens too, because their crying/screaming stops, so you no longer have to deal with it. So the vicious cycle will perpetuate itself.)

So here’s what my mother-in-law told us (and what we have done with our own (older) child): When your toddler/kid acts up, take them out and keep them in a (gentle but firm) body lock until they’ve calmed down and are ready to go back in. Kids will QUICKLY realize that they much prefer the relative freedom of being confined to a whole bench rather than the much more confining prison of having to be held down in your arms.

Our daughter, when she was a bit younger (probably two or so), noticed some other kids playing out in the foyer one day and probably thought she would be allowed the same privilege when she started screaming enough to be taken out (which hadn’t happened before, at least not since she was a small baby). As I took her out, she anticipated being put down and kicked her legs in excitement…only to be taken over to the nearest couch and held in my lap. Stealing another page out of my mother-in-law’s book, I just whispered “I love you” over and over again to keep myself calm (and to eventually calm her down), and then when she was starting to not flail, I laid out the conditions—we could sit out here like this as long as she chose to be loud, or we could go back in on the bench and sit quietly. She chose to go back in pretty quick.

And I think we’ve only had to do that 2 or 3 times since she turned two (she just turned 4). The rest of the time, she’s pretty well-behaved (and all it usually takes is a threat that we’ll take her out and just hold in our laps for her to sober up pretty quick.)

If your children are arguing with each other…

If they are arguing over a toy/activity, see if you can whisper a quick conflict resolution (like, let her play for two minutes and then you can play with it the next two) or offer another things for the other child to do. If the problem escalates, take away the toy, or plant yourself in between the squabbling children. If all else fails, take one or both of the children out (after taking away the offending toy/game), and follow the directions above.

If you still have a baby/young toddler…

START YOUNG. Many of our friends thought one of our rules was particularly crazy, but it has paid off for us HUGELY in the long run, and that rule is this:

When your child is still quite young (anything under two years old), don’t let them get off the bench and play on the floor. They can sit and play quietly on the bench, they can move across the bench to the other parent or to another sibling, but don’t let them off the bench.

You guys, everyone we told this strategy to thought we were insane. “How do you expect your kid to do that?” they asked. Hear us out, though–

A lot of our expectations regarding church behavior are for the benefit of other people–we don’t want our kids causing a distraction and making it so that other people can’t concentrate. Eventually, we knew that reinforcing certain behaviors would make it so that WE could actually concentrate, too. And there’s nothing that distracts EVERYONE so much as a toddler who is left to their own devices to roll around under the benches and make faces at fellow worshippers or to run up and down the aisles, gleefully giggling as you chase after them (although if that’s happened to you, don’t feel bad–every parent has a few good nightmare stories! Just do the best you can to start helping them learn those boundaries now, starting with this Sunday.)

So when our oldest started being able to move around more independently (around 9 or 10 months old), I made the very conscious decision to never put her on the floor. Instead, I held her in my lap and played quiet games with her, or we had her sit by us on the bench and play with her toys. As she got older, if she climbed off the bench, we simply put her back on again. If she started to fuss about it, we took her out and did the strategy above.

You guys, it did not take very long before she realized that it was just better to stay on the bench.

And now that she’s older and we do allow her down off the bench, she very much knows the limits–if she escapes into the aisle, we’ll take her out. If she starts pestering the people around us, we’ll tell her to get back on the bench (and if she whines about it loudly, we’ll take her out).

I realize that only having one child who is old enough to try these strategies on is hardly enough to qualify us as experts, but for what it’s worth, it has worked really well for us, and we frequently get comments from people about how well-behaved our children are at church. And if these strategies stop working in the future and we need to try something else, I’ll make sure to update this post 🙂

family with young kids sitting reverently during the sacrament

4. Remember the reason that you’re all at church and consciously do something to enhance that experience.

Sometimes you have Sundays when everyone’s grouchy and the baby won’t stop crying and you didn’t hear a word of the meeting, and you wonder–“Why bother? I heard nothing, the kids heard nothing…This isn’t making a difference.”

Yep, been there.

And while I can’t promise that every Sunday will be a spiritual feast (because I still have really hard Sundays when I hear almost nothing of what was said), I have found a few things that work really well to make sure that we all at least get SOMETHING out of the meeting.

Here are a few:

  • In our meetinghouses, there are separate mother’s rooms where you can listen to the meeting via a speaker broadcast. So, I just make sure I’m wearing something that’s nursing-friendly, and I take the baby in the mother’s room to nurse for about 20-25 minutes each Sunday during the first general meeting (sacrament meeting). Since he’s eating, he’s quiet, and I’m able to listen to the meeting uninterrupted during that time.
  • If your spouse also is at church with you, take turns dealing with a particularly unruly child. We like to call this “tapping out.” I take my turn until I’m exhausted and starting to lose it, and then I tap out and he takes over.
  • Actually participate in the meeting. For me, that means singing along with all the hymns, closing my eyes and bowing my head for the prayer, and listening to the speakers. If my oldest tries to interrupt or distract me, I gently whisper to her that I’m trying to learn more about Jesus, and then I try to encourage her to listen to see if she can hear the speaker talk about anything she knows. She’s actually caught on to some surprisingly advanced concepts this way! (And she loves helping us get out the hymnbooks and find the right page, and she loves trying to sing along, too.)
  • Because the point of church isn’t just to keep our kids entertained the whole time–we want them to learn to listen and learn, too–we try to be really intentional about it. So, during the most important time during our church block (the administration of the sacrament), we reserve a special photo book/album just for that. In it, we’ve included pictures of Jesus that have simple scriptural stories attached, such as of Jesus calming the storm, Jesus walking on water, Jesus healing the blind, etc. We’ve also included pictures of our family, pictures of our kids with grandparents, and pictures of us (my husband and I) from important spiritual milestones we’ve had, like getting married in the temple and serving missions. As our kids get older and are baptized (you need to be at least 8 years old to be baptized in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), we’ll put photos of them in their white dresses/suits from that day as well.
    • Each time the bread and water are passed around for the sacrament, we quietly pick a story about Jesus from the book and talk about it with our kids. We’ll also talk about the importance of our family, tell our kids how much we love them, and tell them how much we know that our Heavenly Father and Jesus love them, too. No matter how crazy the rest of our Sunday church block is, during that 10 or 15-minute segment, we almost always all get something out of it.
    • For your reference, we used this little packet of “reverence cards,” which has 26 different cards, each with a different pictures of Jesus on it. I don’t *love* the artwork for all of them (and so we only actually use about 15 of them), but they’ve worked really well, all the same.
child folding arms in prayer

5. Take Time to Reflect

If being reverent and respectful is hard for your children, make sure you take some time regularly (ideally every week, but hopefully at least once a month) to reflect on what you’ve tried, how it’s worked, and what can be improved. Make sure you celebrate the victories, and make sure you find ways to point out the good things your children are working to improve.

I am an imperfect parent, and I am no expert on children in general. However, I DO know that when you pray for ways to specifically help YOUR children, you WILL have thoughts and inspiration come to you to help you in that. I truly believe that heaven opens itself to help parents with their righteous desires for their families. It sometimes is a process, and maybe some trial-and-error is necessary, but you were not sent here to fail—in your parenting efforts, or in anything else.

So take heart! Heaven’s got your back.

And, if you’re looking for a place to worship this Easter, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has meeting places all over the world, and we welcome all visitors with open arms. If you’re interested in seeing the closest meetinghouse to YOU, go ahead and click here to use the meetinghouse finder tool.

What are your best strategies for getting through church with young kids?